From Dr Ben Witherington, in his review of the exegetical section of Dr W. Brian Shelton’s book, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity:
While certainly, there is plenty of discussion of grace in the NT, the fact remains that the phrase ‘prevenient grace’ does not occur in the NT, any more than the noun phrase ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit’ occurs in the NT. The question then becomes— is the idea or concept present in the NT?
I think part of the problem is that the discussion has been confined too narrowly within the scope of discussions of grace. Take for example the Gospel of John which is so important for Shelton’s case for prevenient grace. The word grace (charis) itself actually only shows up once in the whole Gospel, in the first chapter (‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’). By contrast the Holy Spirit and Christ show up in a multitude of passages. So, I would say at the outset it would be far better to talk about the prevenient work of the Spirit on the unbeliever, and in the world, than to talk about prevenient grace. This is a much more exegetically defensible approach in various regards.
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Much more to the point is Shelton’s discussion of John’s Gospel (pp. 24ff.), and especially John 1.9, which I take to be referring to Christ who is the light coming into the world by means of the incarnation as discussed in this passage, and we are told that he enlightens everyone, all of humankind in his coming. If we simply stick to the immediate context, at the very least this means that Christ reveals to all their dark spiritual condition, and hence their need for repentance and salvation. This passage is not merely about creation theology and the general revelation of God in creation. This passages is about the dawning of redemption, because God loves the entire world and desires no one to perish. Now, we are getting somewhere.
Equally helpful is Shelton’s deconstruction of the usual Calvinist reading of John 6.44. As Shelton rightly stresses, this text about God’s ‘drawing’ of persons absolutely must be compared to John 12.32 where it is said that when Christ is lifted up on the cross he will draw (same Greek verb) all human beings to himself. Drawing then can have nothing to do with the Calvinist notion of effectual calling or election of the predestined few. And John 12.32 as Shelton also makes clear, cannot be fobbed off with the weak argument that it was merely suggesting that Christ would draw all ‘kinds’ of persons or ‘types’ of persons to himself. Nope. The text does not say this, and too much of the rest of this Gospel does not comport with such a reading of John 12.32. There is a further point that Shelton does not make that is worth stressing— the term ‘world’ (kosmos in the Greek), in this Gospel refers to the whole world of fallen humanity whom Christ has come to save. So when we hear in John 3.16-17 that God loves ‘the world’ there is no way possible that this could be gerrymandered into the notion that God has covenant love for the elect.
And here is where I say that while John 1.9 makes clear that Christ is the illuminator of our spiritual condition, according to the Fourth Gospel it is the Holy Spirit who convicts, convinces, and converts a person (noting that it is ‘the world’ that the Spirit convicts of sin– John 16.8-11). The Spirit is also the one whom, after conversion, leads the disciple into all truth. It appears to me then that we would do better to talk about the prevenient work of the Spirit on and in the non-believer rather than discussing prevenient grace.
More on Prevenient Grace (external links):
- Beyond Calvinism, “Prevenient Grace: An Introduction” (Society of Evangelical Arminians)
- Andrew Dragos, “How Prevenient Grace Shapes Our Missional Presence” (Seedbed)
- Brian Shelton, “Is Prevenient Grace in the Bible?” (Seedbed)
- John Leek, “The Promise of Planting with Prevenient Grace” (Seedbed)
More from GospelEncounter:
- Does an Arminian understanding of grace lead to a more missional worldview?
- Arminius and Wesley on Enjoying and Desiring God